Chinaman

I didn’t watch England beat New Zealand and win the Cricket World Cup. For some time now I have maintained an idiosyncratic protest against neoliberal cricket, particularly the strain cultivated in India. In 1992 however in a short film for the BBC I predicted the renaissance of leg spin bowling in England. And I hope the leaders of the Commonwealth meeting in 2013 were entertained by this piece included in the official publication.

Cricket in Common

In addition to sharing a commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter, most if not all of the 53 nations – almost a third of the world’s population – remarkably share a passion for a game that is quintessentially English.

Four years ago the Commonwealth held its 60th Anniversary Dinner at Lords in London. Former British Prime Minister, John Major said:

Cricket and the Commonwealth continue to march together. The intricacies of both are difficult to explain, but both continue to thrive. They are linked by history, and have evolved over time to reflect our shared interests, common goals, sense of fair play… We have moved on from the age when, in England, the Captain, the Amateurs and the Professional players all used different dressing rooms and stepped onto the pitch through separate gates. Such images symbolise times long past. As does the Empire that is now a Commonwealth.

He reminded his audience it was here at the “headquarters of cricket”, that the West Indies in 1950 took on the English at their own game, in their own
country and out-thought and outplayed them.

Perhaps no win in cricket ever had such social significance as Ramadhin and Valentine’s destruction of England at Lord’s. The game was won by the charm and guile of the cricketing sophisticates’ delight: the art of great spin bowling… Cricket can uplift whole communities – whole nations, even – or cast them down. It adds value to lives… Within the Commonwealth, cricket is an invisible bond, a shared love that brings people together. The West Indian cricket writer, C.L.R. James argued that – for the West Indies – cricket had a magic that was a guiding light for the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. I believe that to be true.”

For James, cricket was more than a pastime. In Beyond a Boundary, published in 1963, he argued cricket was art instinctively understood by the masses who watched W.G. Grace, the best-known Englishman of his time. Four decades later The Times could still describe Beyond a Boundary as “the most finely crafted book on cricket ever written.” What is certain is that
cricket flourishes in Commonwealth nations where the game is still inseparable from the fabric of ordinary life and has not become a pointless distraction.

Unlike James’s memoir, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew by Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka is a novel, the winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize last year. But for Karunatilaka, like James,
cricket extends beyond the boundary, reflecting a larger social context. The book has been hailed as the publishing equivalent of Sri Lanka’s sensational 1996 World Cup victory – which is part of the back story. Chinaman has spawned a phenomenal number of reviews confirming the spell that cricket casts over the lives of millions of Commonwealth citizens.

At the heart of the plot is a quest for cricket’s Holy Grail. Hard-drinking journalist W.G. Karunasena (Wije to his friends, Gamini to his wife) is convinced that Pradeepan Sivanathan Matthew, an unorthodox,
unknown and unacknowledged Sri Lankan left arm spinner – notably of Tamil extraction – is the greatest player of all time. Together with his neighbour Ariyatne Byrd, a maths teacher – convenient for the
statistics that delightfully course through the book – W.G. attempts to redeem his wasted life by making a documentary about Matthew.

The tragedy of genius unfulfilled and talent wasted is a common enough theme in sport. But the metaphor of the Chinaman – outsider, spin bowler
of consummate skill and unimpeachable ethic, the magician who promises and vindicates a society’s belief in its possibilities – is peculiarly a construct of cricket and empire. There is therefore no question about how
the search to find Pradeep Matthew – the Chinaman erased from Sri Lankan cricket records – must end. But it is also the most polite excuse for writing wonderfully about cricket.

Karunatilika sets-out his stall early. “Left arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children, or cure you of disease. But once in a while,
the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”

Reality is blurred and bent; floaters, googlies and Chinamen spatter the text defending the essential nobility of cricket and the human spirit from creeping opportunism, cynicism and worse. But it is the marvellous passages of cricket writing and judgment– deceptively appearing as subtext – that provide credentials and convince.

South African wicketkeeper, Dennis Lindsay, is included in the world’s greatest cricket team – constructed on paper napkins at a wedding party at
the Lanka Oberoi in Colombo in 1994. “Critics hurl knives but not me” says W.G. He believes Lindsay’s selection – over Tallon, Knott and Bari – is eminently justified. “I saw Lindsay tour Sri Lanka as part of a
Commonwealth side in the 1960s and keep wickets to the fire of Wes Hall and Freddie Truman and to the wiles of Chandrasekhar and Prasanna. I have never seen that level of agility in anyone else outside of a
cartoon film.”

Whether this ever happened is debatable. What cannot be impeached are Lindsay’s remarkable statistics, his almost single-handed destruction of
Australia in 1966/7 and his ethereal dismissal of Barry Shepherd in the fourth test at Adelaide in 1964. The book sparkles with gems like this.

‘Chinaman’ is widely seen as an allegory of corruption, impotence and cognitive dissonance in a society increasingly unable to distinguish reality from rumour. Reviewers in the subcontinent are quick to point out
this is equally applicable to Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. It may also be true – even if less obvious – of developed nations where consumers are held to ransom by irresponsible corporations and banks and elections
provide little real political choice. It’s just not cricket.

W.G. is not a pessimist or nostalgic. He’s a believer. “Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters.”

John Major ended his speech at Lords positively. “In forty years’ time – when the Commonwealth marks its Centenary Year – I hope and believe that cricket will still be playing its own unique role in strengthening and
widening the Commonwealth we celebrate tonight.” The gift of cricket – fairness above all else – is a treasure worth preserving. These are difficult times but it may not be too late.

In the words of W.G. Karunasena, husband of Sheila, father of Garfield
and champion of Pradeep Sivanathan Matthew: “It is
indeed possible to score a late goal in extra time, to land
a knock-out at the end of the 12th, to hit a six off the
final ball.”

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